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Budget internships both good and bad

By Rob Cover - posted Thursday, 12 May 2016


Among the many more high-profile planks of the first Turnbull-Morrison budget is the Jobs PaTH program which, among other activities, is designed to provide an internship scheme for young job seekers under the age of twenty-five years.

Job-seekers who voluntarily undertake an internship will receive an additional $200 per fortnight for fifteen to twenty-five hours per week, in addition to their existing income support. Treasurer Scott Morrison referred to the scheme as "real work for the dole". At the same time, Morrison referred to it as a win for business who benefit from reduced labour costs while supporting workplace training.

The internship scheme has become a point of debate in the days since the budget announcement and is likely to remain a minor point of discussion during the 2016 Federal election period. Some of the confusion has been the result of Employment Minister Michaelia Cash confusing implying the scheme was mandatory.

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Supporters of the scheme, such as Matthew Lesh of the right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs, argue that the internships are voluntary, provide workplace experience and increase employability. For Lesh, internships at very low pay are fair since interns' relative lack of experience makes their labour "not yet particularly valuable". Some editorial commentary has pointed to the benefits to business of the $1,000 up-front payment they will receive to host an intern for up to twelve weeks.

Those opposed to the scheme have referred to it as "taxpayer-funded exploitation", pointing out that young people undertaking work for businesses will be paid less than the minimum wage, and that it was unclear whether or not interns would be covered by workers compensation laws. The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) pointed to concerns that the scheme would further lock out from the labour market the longer-term unemployed and create the risk that this scheme would replace real job opportunities, leaving interns in a potential cycle of under-paid labour without security.

Experts such as University of Adelaide professor of Law, Andrew Stewart, have expressed considered concerns that such a scheme without safeguards will result in a reduction of employment, because it there may be no measures to "stop businesses using this program to replace paid employees".

Both sides of the argument make a valuable points about the future prospects of employees during an era of high unemployment, particularly: the fact that such a scheme does provide an important opportunity for work experience and does indeed increase employability; at the same time it remains a problem that such labour, if not fully inclusive of a learning opportunity, is effectively slave labour by paying for potentially-menial work at a rate below the minimum standard.

Where is the Language of Learning?

Internships require a great deal of trust on all parties-both the intern and the host organisation-to ensure a fair learning experience.

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I have been running student internship programs across three university institutions for the past decade. In that role, I have witnessed a great many students benefit from undertaking an internship with an external organisation, primarily through receiving real-world exposure and the opportunity to put their in-class learning to practice among real-world practitioners, while gaining some experience of contemporary workplaces and working culture. The entry on the resumé has been valuable for many who would otherwise not have had the professional experience commensurate with today's entry to the labour market.

At the same time, however, I have borne witness to entrepreneurial predatory behaviour-I receive on average two emails a week from businesses looking for interns. When asked how they might guarantee a learning experience, most explain that they are simply looking for (cheap) labour to backfill a temporary shortfall.

When asked what that business intends to offer to an intern, many provide a list of activities that do not include, for example, shadowing a professional in order to gain knowledge. Instead, I am given lists of activities such as: filing, answering the phone, cleaning, and "odd-jobs" around the office. In many cases, a potential professional graduate is offered little more than reception responsibilities of which there is no guarantee there will be any learning or knowledge acquisition through the activity.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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